Pallas, Peter-Simon

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(17411811), explorer, geologist, botanist.

Peter-Simon Pallas was born in Berlin, where he received his formal education. He also spent some time in Holland and England working in museums with rich collections in natural history. One of his early studies dealing with polyps and sponges was published in the Hague in 1761 and immediately attracted wide professional attention, not only because of the richness and originality of the presented empirical data, but also with its precisely stated general theoretical propositions. In 1763 Pallas became a member of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences, and a year later he led an exploratory expedition to the Caspian and Baikal areas, concentrating on both natural history and ethnography. Published in three volumes between 1771 and 1778, under the title Travels through Various Provinces in the Russian Empire, and written in German, the study was immediately translated into Russian, and then into French, Italian, and English. Pallas guided several other exploratory expeditions; the trip to Southern Russia, with a heavy concentration on Crimea, proved especially enlightening. All these studies manifested not only Pallas's observational talents but also his profound familiarity with contemporary geology, botany, zoology, mineralogy and linguistics. His Flora Rossica provided a systematic botanical survey of the country's trees.

Pallas's studies extended beyond the limits of traditional natural history. He pondered the general processes and laws related to geology: For example, he presented a theory of the origin of mountains in intraterrestrial explosions. He also made a technically advanced study of regional variations in the Mongolian language, articulated a transformist view of the living forms, which he later abandoned, and, responding to a suggestion made by Catherine II, worked on a comparative dictionary. He also made a historical survey of land tracts discovered by the Russians in the stretches of ocean between Siberia and Alaska. In the journal of the Free Economic Society, established in the age of Catherine II, he published a series of articles on relations of geography to agriculture.

Most of Pallas's studies offered no broad scientific formulations; their strength was in the richness and novelty of descriptive information. Charles Darwin referred to Pallas in four of his major works, always with the intent of adding substance to his generalizations. Georges Cuvier, by contrast, credited Pallas with the creation of "a completely new geology." Pallas's writings appealed to a wide audience not only because, at the time of the Enlightenment, there was a growing interest in the geographies and cultures of the world previously unexplored, but also because they were masterworks of lucid and spirited prose.

Together with the great mathematician Leon-hard Euler, Pallas was a major contributor to the elevation of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences to the level of the leading European scientific institutions.

See also: academy of sciences


Pallas, Peter-Simon. (18021803). Travels through the Southern Provinces of the Russian Empire. 2 vols. London: Longman and Kees.

Vucinich, Alexander. (1963). Science in Russian Culture. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Alexander Vucinich